Square Deal?

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In what could be dismissed as a turf battle between rich guys, a group of Center City residents sees a larger issue. Residents of a condo tower east of Rittenhouse Square are battling the gargantuan vision of parking lot magnate Joseph Zuritsky. The Philly native, who operates at least 100 parking lots across the continent, also holds title to the property across the street from their units in the Two Fifty South 17th St. Condominiums building. If Zuritsky gets his way, a luxe 31-story residential tower will soon be erected where a modest row home sits today. And instead of looking down on parked cars and a neglected three-story house with peeling black paint, residents will find themselves staring into the living rooms of $2 to $4 million condos.

The new tower will be the most exclusive housing in the city, says Zuritsky, and its construction will only increase the value of neighboring real estate. Still, he says, because this is Philadelphia, where tearing down to rebuild is an arduous process, he's not at all surprised that residents have been slowing things down.

Two Fifty South resident Steve Waxman is in the lengthy process of appealing to the Court of Common Pleas. He and his neighbors are hoping a judge will reverse the board's decision to grant Zuritsky a variance allowing him to exceed the site's current three-story height limit. When Waxman and his wife bought their ninth-floor unit in 2002 for about half a mil, they say they assumed the zoning laws would protect the skyline view they fell in love with.

But to frame this dispute as just a fight between the rich and the very rich would be to lose sight of the bigger picture, say members of the grassroots group Save Our Square. SOS member Stuart Feldman says that although Zuritsky's tower would be a "hideosity," broader issues are at stake.

Along with the dozen or so active SOS members, Feldman believes that Mayor Street's appointees on the zoning board have been indiscriminately doling out variances to developers, particularly those who have donated to his campaigns. He points to the fact that Zuritsky was one of the most generous individual contributors to Street's last two mayoral campaigns. "Pay-to-play is alive and well," he says.

Mayoral spokesperson Barbara Grant categorially denies Street attempted to influence the zoning board in any way. "Any allegation that this [went through] because Zuritsky is a friend of the mayor is ridiculous," she says. "That said, [Street] is supportive of this project because in the long run it will be good for the city as a whole."

Eager for new investment, Street is running the risk of permanently altering the cityscape that sets Philadelphia apart, SOS members contend. The condemned three-story house on Rittenhouse Square now facing demolition may not be architecturally significant, but they say they want the city to understand that small, humble houses are vital to preserving downtown Philadelphia's character.

Renovating 1706 Rittenhouse Sq. would be a small step toward preserving Center City's human scale. "The odd little houses are not by themselves of enormous importance," says Feldman, "but if you introduce sterility [in their place], you destroy the rhythm and consistency of the urban fabric."

SOS' Gersil Kay agrees, and further insists that her group favors development, as long as developers incorporate older structures, like the little house on Rittenhouse, into their designs rather than razing them. "These homes are contributing to the historical district as a whole, like teeth in a smile. You can't just knock them out."

Aina Hunter (ahunter@philadelphiaweekly.com) last wrote about a Center City church's fears it will be overshadowed by new condo construction.

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